TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- As Barrett Jones slowly makes his way back into playing shape, the question has to be asked: What if he can't go? What if Alabama's most experienced offensive lineman, and the leader of the offense as a whole, can't play?
The answer is relatively simple. Of all the shuffling that's been done on the second-team offensive line, there's never been a question about who Jones' heir apparent will be. Ryan Kelly, a former four-star and top-five prospect at his position in the 2011 class, is next in line. It's something Jones was all too happy to talk about in mid-November.
"He's my protege, the guy that I've been training up to be the next center, and I think he's going to be an outstanding player and somebody who's going be to a lot of fun for you guys to watch," Jones said of Kelly after beating Western Carolina.
Jones would sprain his foot two weeks later against Georgia in the SEC championship game, hobbling to the stage on crutches. He insisted he would be ready to play against Notre Dame but was held out of practice until Tuesday with Kelly taking all the first-team reps.
"He's extremely quick and explosive," Jones said of his backup. "He just has great feet and body quickness. He's a whole heck of a lot more talented than I am."
The opinion isn't just Jones, who is fond of flattering his teammates. Chance Warmack, Alabama's All-America guard, said Kelly is "an exceptional young player."
"[He] catches on very fast with the scheme of things. I don't really see him as a young player. I see him as a veteran. He's keen on carrying me and taking control in terms of making the right calls. Knowing the scheme, what it takes to be a starter at center on the offensive line. He's doing a really good job."
AJ McCarron joked that life has been easier without Jones snapping him the football at practice. The junior quarterback who leads the country in passing efficiency is close friends with Jones and has told him, "Practice is easier because I don't have to hear him talk."
"I like having him out there, and we kind of go back and forth with each other," McCarron said. "Kelly’s done an excellent job. I have all the confidence in the world in Kelly. I know he can play. When he gets his time he’ll be ready to play, and be ready to show what he can do."
Though Jones stated Wednesday that he will be ready, Kelly has been preparing as if he will have to play. Coach Nick Saban said he was hopeful Jones could practice five times before the game, but he won't be able to do that with just three practices remaining.
Even if Kelly doesn't play during the game, the reps he's getting in practice will be a benefit heading into spring and fall camp where he's expected to step in as the starter at center when Jones is playing in an NFL camp.
"Coach [Jeff] Stoutland always tells us that it can happen to anybody and everybody needs to be ready for it," Warmack said. "He's always been ready. This is his opportunity to contribute not only to the offensive line, but the team. He's doing an excellent job."